DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hobbled into a Wednesday press conference on crutches after hip surgery, a fitting metaphor for state Democrats following this week's historic recall election.
After a decade of success in moving Colorado to the left, Democrats were blindsided Tuesday when voters ousted two liberal state senators in a special election spurred by their support for sweeping gun-control legislation.
Now Mr. Hickenlooper finds himself targeted by coalition of newly energized gun owners, rural voters and Republicans that overcame long odds and an enormous spending disadvantage to unseat Democratic state Sens. Angela Giron and John Morse, the first such recalls in state history.
"Hickenlooper needs to be next!" said Cody Hill of Yuma, Colo., in a Thursday post on the Recall Senator John Morse Facebook page.
A half-dozen Republicans were already poised to take on Mr. Hickenlooper when he seeks re-election in November 2014, and the recall outcome has only fed the perception that the once-popular Democrat is increasingly beatable.
"The governor clearly lost credibility with moderate voters, Republicans and rural voters — there's a mini-revolt going on out there," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "There's a very significant shift that took place that night that confirms the viewpoint that the state legislature overreached."
An Aug. 23 Quinnipiac University Poll found 45 percent of Colorado voters say Mr. Hickenlooper deserves re-election, while 48 percent say he does not. The same poll also found the Democratic state legislature with a 37 percent approval rating following a session described as the most liberal in state history.
Analysts predict the recall will prompt Mr. Hickenlooper to distance himself from the left-wing legislature, and it's already begun: On Wednesday, he defended the bill mandating background checks on all gun purchases, including temporary transfers, but said he wasn't thrilled with the bill limiting magazine capacity to 15 rounds.
"You know, I was never as fired up on the magazine checks," said Mr. Hickenlooper, adding, "I'm not denying it was an inconvenience to make everyone going out to the shooting range, and they're perfectly law-abiding, to ask them to limit the size of their clips. It means you have to load more clips, you know, that was a tough one."
Republicans countered that Mr. Hickenlooper didn't veto a single bill that reached his desk this year, including the magazine legislation.
State Sen. Greg Brophy, who's seeking the 2014 GOP gubernatorial nomination, said he plans to introduce legislation to repeal the magazine bill, and urged Mr. Hickenlooper to support it.
"If he's having second thoughts, if he wants to move to middle, then have him throw his weight behind a repeal of that stupid law," said Mr. Brophy. "But I'm throwing the B.S. flag on this one. I don't believe him."
Even before the legislature convenes in January, Mr. Hickenlooper faces another headache in the form of Amendment 66, a Democrat-pushed $1 billon tax increase to fund K-12 education. The governor has endorsed the initiative, which will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
A loss would further feed the perception of a grassroots revolt against the state's Democratic Party standard-bearer, up to and including Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, who's also up for re-election in 2014.
"From a Hickenlooper and Udall perspective, if that tax increase goes down after Hickenlooper put his prestige behind it, and after the loss of the two state Senate seats, that's a one-two punch," said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams.
The recall didn't change the balance of power in the state Senate — even after losing two seats, the Democrats still control the chamber by a margin of 18-17 — but the recall loss is expected to rein in the party's aggressive agenda.
"It totally changes what goes on in the state legislature next year," said Mr. Wadhams. "There's going to be a reluctance by Democrats to be as activist as they were in the last session. And HIckenlooper's going to be in overdrive to make sure nothing dangerous gets past him."
Unfortunately for the recallers, there's no sign that the Democrats will move to undo their gun-control legislation.
"So far no one's come forward and said they want to reopen that battle," said Mr. Hickenlooper.
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